Tales of Adventure: Two Men and the Amazon
story credit to: Andrew Gibbs
INTO THE AMARAKAERI
Restlessly drifting in and out of sleep, a stiff jolt sent from the ailing dirt road underneath opened my eyes. I tiredly peered out the dusty window of the rattling truck to catch my first glimpse of the remarkable Cloud Forest, an aptly named highland rain forest in Peru. Perched 14,000 feet above sea level, the misty collection of low, seemingly orphaned clouds were clinging to the steep lush green valley walls decorating the rain forest like epaulets on the shoulders of each ridgeline. The bumpy, puddle-ridden path that we were descending connects the Andean highlands and Amazon basin.Space is a premium on this rain-soaked and pocked road as it is only one narrow lane flanked with a forested wall to our left and a sheer drop to the river thousands of feet below. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle was test of nerves.
You see, the direction of travel on this age old path changes daily; on Monday it is a one way avenue to the east, on Tuesday all traffic is strictly due west, and so on. Each time our driver was forced to balance the wheels of our truck on the crumbling edge of the off camber road to accommodate an oncoming vehicle, his fear and frustration became apparent through a string of Latin profanities with which he greet each oncoming vehicle.
This harrowing mountain road eventually brought us to an epic expedition into the sacred, ancestral territory of the Harakmbut, Yine and Matsiguenga Indians. Located near the well-known Manu National Park, the Amarakaeri Reserve is a half a million-hectare reserve that is so remote and pristine, its crystal clear rivers do not even require treatment for drinking. You just crouch down and drink straight from the water.
Now into the flat lowlands, we passed through countless rural villages made up of concrete buildings and wooden shacks adorned with thatch roofs. Interestingly, each home in these towns was supported high off the ground with stilts to evade the rising waters during the wet season.
As we made our way in and out of the unpaved streets, our driver deftly navigated around the “Three C’s,” cats, chickens and children.We traversed the muddy, potholed avenues of countless Amazonian hamlets then finally arrived at our port of call, a minute riverside village inhabited by about 100 people. This little community was simplistic, yet efficient and charming.
An abandoned cement foundation served as a town square amongst a myriad of corrugated metal shacks, partly constructed mortar buildings and carcasses of retired boats strewn about, a small break in the dense jungle surrounding the township revealed a steep, narrow footpath that lead to a waterfront teaming with daily commerce.
We headed down the path, ineptly dodging the nimble locals who were scurrying up and down the worn trail with their loads precariously balanced on their heads and backs. Emerging onto the shorefront captured our first glimpse of one of the thousands of tributaries stemming from the great Amazon River, which is where we would be spending the next two weeks.
THE FIRST RIVER
Decorating the shoreline were several long, narrow, canopied boats outfitted with rows of padded seats and modified outboard motors to whisk tourists through the shallow rocky stretches of the river. Believing that we would to be shielded from the weather and blessed with padded seats, we let out a sigh of relief and began to chuckle at the other boats nearby.
One boat in particular stood out, a hand built dugout canoe that could barely hold four people. It was powered by an outboard motor so crudely fashioned it would have made Macgyver blush. We felt sorry for the poor fools who would have to tempt fate down the river in that one. As Murphy would have it, we were those fools; and we packed seven people in that leaking log.
After three hours of exposure in a downpour, we reached the shore of a small fishing and agricultural village of about 300 people. The tentative plan was to spend the night there and then have the log drop us off further downstream to begin our trek into the jungle abyss. We still had no idea who our guides were, but were content with the thought of shelter for the night.
Although the skies were still dumping rain as we stepped on the beach, we were greeted with a warm welcome by various residents of all shapes, sizes and ages. A small group of young men quickly summoned our attention and then whisked us through their quaint village while dozens of young children curiously orbited around us. We were cheerfully lead to an empty, unused barn with a cement floor where would set up camp for the night. There, we became the main exhibits in a human zoo. As we changed, ate, set up our tent, etc. we were perpetually watched and studied by a dozen or so curious villagers at an unusually close distance. They simply could not get enough of us, especially when we were changing. Naked white men, go get the kids honey they’ll love it!
After entertaining the inquisitive locals with our pale skinned derrieres, we were summoned to dinner in a small, elevated thatch hut. Two men promptly brewed us some tea and prepared us their favorite delicacy, Tapier. A Tapier is a large and elusive nocturnal rodent that resembles an anteater. Famished from the day’s journey and ignoring the bats dive-bombing our heads, we dove right in to our meals, which, interestingly, tasted just like chicken. We graciously thanked our hosts and then retired to our exhibit in the zoo. If you have never tried to sleep with several young men and women snickering and pointing at you, try it, it’s strangely therapeutic.
After a breakfast of comparable intrigue to the last evening’s dinner, we finally met our guides. Pablo, Rolando and Walter. All three were residents of this friendly little village, and only one, Pablo, the eldest guide and the apparent paladin of the group, had ever guided anyone before. Walter was notified only an hour earlier that he was to guide three westerners through the jungle and Rolando appeared to just be along for the ride. After a detailed explanation of our upcoming adventure by Pablo, the first significant challenge was made readily apparent, the language barrier.
Our guides’ first language is Quechua and their second, like us, was Spanish. Our common thread of communication turned out to be a language none of us have mastered. After this realization, we all smiled and clamored into the same log from the previous day and hunkered down for a long ride to our drop off point. Rife with anticipation, we each quietly reflected in a quixotic manner what the next ten days would hold in store for us.
At a long sweeping bend in the slow moving river, the boat dropped the six of us off to begin our journey to a final rendezvous point over eighty miles away. At this point, we sorted through and organized our small cache of food that was meant to last only a few days. Once on the river, we would be fending for ourselves. Rice, noodles and ketchup would to serve as our only reserve for the lean days.
The terrain we began trekking through would have made an Eco-Challenge racer cringe. Rich, Tim and I each carried our backpacks and took turns tying the tent to each other’s packs when one’s attention would drift elsewhere. As the monogamous pairs of Macaw Parrots screeched above us in unison, we hiked in and out of water almost entirely on rocks varying in size from golf balls to basketballs. Small dunes of river sand broke the monotony by grinding away our tender urbanized feet. Even the pain of my feet bleeding through a half inch of caked on mud could not distract me from the indescribable beauty of this remote region.
The rainforest of Peru is a breathtaking mosaic of life. The rich soil, abundance of water and overhead canopy of trees, form the perfect environment for life. The thick, wet, oxygen rich air is consumed by millions of species of animals all around us. This region is known to have most prolific array of flora and fauna in the world. As I was attempting to take it all in, an Indigo blue butterfly the size of a man’s hand casually fluttered by as if to welcome us in. Amazing.
The idea began innocently enough, Rich, Tim and I all recently graduated from law school and decided on a post bar-exam peregrination to the Amazon. Rich and I met studying law in Kenya in 1999 and have explored many far reaches of the world together since then. Tim, a law school friend from Denver who has also traveled extensively, joined us for the first time.
We left our respective locales to meet in Lima, a bustling, overcrowded, smog engulfed city that is the economic nucleus and capital of Peru. After arriving in Lima, we flew directly to Cuzco, the launching pad for many wayward travelers planning trips into the jungle and to Machu Pichu.
Cuzco is a beautiful city that is deftly clinging to its identity and history as the tourism industry surreptitiously makes off with its irreplaceable culture. In the shadows of a fifteenth century chapel lays the Plaza De Armas, the town square, which was teaming with camera toting tourists clad in ubiquitous khaki zip-away travel pants. As beautiful as it is, it was still often hard to visualize this city as it once was; adorned in gold and ruled by the Incan empire before the Spanish took it all away in 1532.
What a great place to begin an adventure. But first, we had to find someone to take us somewhere no tour groups went or were allowed to go. We spent days inquiring into the countless tour agencies, all boasting the best adventure money could buy, but none of them suited our seemingly maddening, but discerning goals. We wanted to trek as deep into the Amazon as someone would take us.
After we almost gave up and stooped to purchase a Manu jungle tour by boat and lodge, we stumbled upon a tall, Danish gentleman. He was distributing small, crude, single sided black and white flyers that advertised a slide show detailing a primitive adventure into the Amazon Basin.Numb from the incessant bartering with other tour operators, each reached for a flyer.
That evening, we walked out the door of our hotel and followed the directions scrawled on the four inch by four-inch piece of paper. We zigzagged through Cuzco’s labyrinth of steep and narrow cobblestone streets slowly escaping crowds milling about the Plaza De Armas.
As we began to each feel secretly uncomfortable with our increasing distance from a known public area, we located an ambiguous door to what appeared to be a private home. A sheet of computer paper with the removable holed perforations from an antiquated paper-feed printer was taped to the heavy wooden door that announced: “Wanamei Expeditions.”
THE SALES PITCH
We entered and ascended a rickety and narrow steal spiral staircase up to what seemed like a bedroom. It was actually an office and presentation room that happened to be in private home. There, we met Claus Kjaerby, the flyer distributor from earlier that afternoon; whom we immediately nicknamed him the “Great Dane.” From behind the Great Dane, stepped Mateo Jicca, the voice of Wanamei Expeditions.
The Dane then translated Senior Jicca’s friendly introduction to us. Listening intently to the Great Dane, we no longer hear his voice, but listened intently to his words as Senior Jicca spoke through him as he passionately explained that Wanamei Expeditions was built around eight Indian communities and bears the name of the Harakmbut Indians’ sacred tree, the Wanamei. Senior Jicca went on to proclaim that his enterprise is the first and only ecotourism company in Peru that is owned and operated by an indigenous Indian, him.
After a brief slide show outlining the extraordinary and somewhat daunting venture into the remote depths of the Amazon jungle in one of several small guided trips, we were sold. We chose the longest selection they had, nine days.
After we assured the Great Dane that our health or travel insurance would cover an emergency extrication by helicopter, we were headed far off the beaten path and into the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru. There, we would trek for several days into the rain forest and then spend a week traveling down the Isiroé river in traditional balsa rafts constructed on the spot solely from Balsa trees.
The Great Dane emphasized the trip would be “rough going,” but I’m not sure even he realized the gravity of this understatement.
After finalizing the departure logistics with the Great Dane, we met our transportation in the pre-dawn hours of the following morning for the first leg of what turned out to be a uniquely orchestrated journey.
The first light of the morning was probably the only time the sleepless town of Cuzco was in a state of repose. In the dull amber glow of the moments before sunrise, we shivered in the thick and cold predawn air while we marveled at the empty streets and the incredibly novel silence.
A small, grey four door Toyota pickup truck carved through the silence when it awkwardly back up a narrow alley to within feet of us. A small Peruvian man hopped from the driver’s seat and flashed use a tired grin. He introduced himself as the driver who would take us to the jungle. As if to head off the next inevitable question, he promptly clarified that he was only a driver, not our guide.
Through our limited Spanish skills we asked when we would meet our guides. He smiled again and said that he did not know anything about our guides. He then held up and envelope incased in plastic sandwich bag and explained that the contents of the envelope contained the directions about what do with us. He loosely elaborated that the Great Dane instructed him to drop us off at a small village and hand the envelope to somebody in the village. Without another thought, he walked away to begin loading the truck.
Fortunately, the bolts of excitement eclipsed our apprehension as we pushed out of Cuzco in the loaded down truck. We darted through poverty stricken suburbs of Cuzco and then began to ascend the battered roads into Peruvian Andes.
After crossing a mountain pass at 15,000 feet above sea level, which was dwarfed by the 20,000-foot peaks posturing for attention in the background, we began our descent into the revered Cloud Forest. For eight bone-jarring hours, we rattled and bounced our way down the valley walls through the Cloud Forest to emerge in the great Amazon River Basin.